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Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL

North Park Village Nature Center's educator, Sean Shaffer, works with children in the center's free preschool program to call for owls.

Getting kids outdoors makes them happier, healthier – and smarter

by Alicia Swanstrom
Oct 31, 2012


Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL

On a nature walk at North Park Village Nature Center, children search for squirrels in a tree stump hole.


Liza Sullivan/Through Play

Liza Sullivan found when her daughter, Jettie, had time in nature preserves, she would slow down and marvel at her surroundings.  Upon arriving home, Jettie would describe her experiences in letters to family.


Liza Sullivan/Through Play

Henry and Jettie Sullivan, 5-year-old twins, would use their times outdoors to role play and reenact scenes from books they read with their mother, Liza Sullivan.


Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL


Data from  The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Study, "Generation M2:  Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds"


The total amount of time children spend watching television, surfing the internet, playing video games and watching movies has increased almost 35 percent over 10 years from five hours per day in 1999 to 7.5 hours a day in 2009.

Alicia Swanstrom/MEDILL     

North Park Village Nature Center's Sean Shaffer takes a group of children on nature walk to call for owls.

Related Links

Chicago Wilderness Congress 2012 has a Leave No Child Inside track to inform parents on conservation and using outdoors as a curriculum.Family Action Network holds speaker events regarding positive youth development.Let's Play list of great outdoor play spaces in the Chicago area.For more information on the outdoor play movement, see the Children & Nature Network for research and campaigns across the states.Lake County Forest PreservesForest Preserve District of Cook CountyChicago Park DistrictThe Alliance For Early ChildhoodSummary of research on children and outdoor activitySurvey: Growth of outdoor activityChicago Wilderness’s Leave No Child Inside programRichard Louv websiteUniversity of Essex research on outdoor activityNorth Park Village Nature Center

More time indoors coincides with increased ADHD diagnoses

As research shows time in nature has mental, physical and emotional benefits, other studies show children are still spending more time in front of a screen. 


Activities such as watching television and movies, playing video games and surfing the internet on the computer, activities typically done indoors, take up more than 7.5 hours of a child's average day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation study released in 2010.  That number is up 35 percent from five hours per day in 1999. 
All that time spent using electronics can contribute to children's inability to focus, says Dr. Karla Steingraber, a clinical psychologist licensed in Illinois and Wyoming.  She specializes in behavioral and developmental disorders in children and adolescents, the diagnoses of which are increasing along with those hours consumed by media, something she says is not a coincidence.  
In 2010, doctors diagnosed 10.4 million children in the U.S. with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Ten years ago, in 2000, doctors issued only 6.2 million of those diagnoses.
"There is an emotional component to why these kids can't focus," said Steingraber.  "It does a lot to be exposed to things that aren't competitive in nature."
Compared to classroom assignments completed for a grade, there is no right or wrong way to observe animals and plants in the outdoors, she said.  The absence of that pressure alone can calm children. 
Liza Sullivan says that pressure starts with the schools and trickles down from parent to child.   
"You want to make sure your kids are set for school," she said.  "So a lot of parents sign their kids up for extra classes to get ready and there's this feeling of frenzy."
"New Trier fear" is the term more frequently used among parents of the north suburbs.  New Trier High School in Winnetka ranked 139th on Newsweek's 2011 list of best high schools in the country.

Sullivan is using her experience of teaching her children through Chicago's wilderness to send a message to parents who might have similar feelings of intimidation.
"The more that I can help parents to understand they can slow down and their kids are going to be fine academically and socially, and maybe even more so because they have an amazing foundation," she said, "the more parents may venture outside of their typical idea of play."

To Liza Sullivan, a mother of two, the Earth is more than the grass beneath her feet. It’s a place where her children foster creativity and confidence, develop character traits like empathy and resilience and learn the importance of taking risks.

The quality of her twins’ growth is rooted in their time outdoors, she said.

So much so that two years ago, Sullivan decided against her kids’ last year of preschool, quit her job as the associate vice president of education at the Chicago Children’s Museum, and decided to use that time to teach the then-3 1/2 year olds on her own through free play and time in Chicago’s natural environment.

After visiting 50 parks in 50 days and returning to favorite forest preserves, nature centers, farms, museums, beaches and playgrounds throughout Chicago, Sullivan said her children have started kindergarten with an amazing foundation. Now she is committed to helping other parents who might not be professional, full-time educators through co-chairing the Let's Play initiative at the Alliance for Early Childhood and writing informative blogs.

Sullivan’s efforts come at a time when the outdoor, free play movement has become increasingly popular. Research has shown that time in nature not only helps children be healthier and happier, but is also essential to their cognitive development. As a result, more people have participated in grassroots initiatives, such as Chicago Wilderness’s Leave No Child Inside program, aimed at getting kids outdoors.

During the time the Wilmette mom spent with her twins, she witnessed first-hand the benefits shown by research. At a forest preserve, her daughter used the setting to re-enact fairy tales. After her son saw a snake, that night he slithered around their living room. Even climbing a tree became a learning experience. The twins would determine which way would enable them to climb the highest, yet still deciding for themselves how high was too high. Their curiosity was endless, said Sullivan.

“When we walked into nature, the kids’ play was different. It was much more open-ended and much more rich,” she said. “For them, it was more exciting and, for me, it was more of a respite.”

Finding a space that offers a break, versus a potentially chaotic and limited playground, can make a world of difference, Sullivan said.

“It’s very liberating to parent in the outdoors. You don’t have to say, ‘Be quite.’ You don’t have to say, ‘Don’t run.’ Your relationship changes because you don’t have to constantly be disciplining,” she said.

Sullivan used her knowledge as an early-childhood educator and let her kids take the lead. They decided where they wanted to go that day and how they wanted to play. She modeled, read books and assisted her twins when necessary, but for the most part, the day was theirs.

Letting go wasn’t easy. Sullivan said getting outdoors was a learning experience for her, too, as she had to get over the fear that her children’s safety was in jeopardy.

Richard Louv, a child advocacy expert and author of the New York Times bestseller “Last Child in the Woods,” said parental fear of outdoor play is an issue experts are working to address. As a former journalist, Louv said he believes the fear stems from sensationalized and repetitive news coverage of child abductions along with a perception that the outdoors is dangerous.

“There is danger,” Louv said. “Even in nature it’s not risk free, but we’ve been conditioned to live in a state of fear.”

Of the numerous days Sullivan’s children spent outdoors, the family never had to make a trip to the emergency room.

“It’s really scary to be a parent, but I don’t want my kids to be totally afraid,” she said. “I want them to feel they can trust their decisions, feel comfortable handling risk and know what to do if something goes wrong.”

The two years with her children were a luxury for Sullivan, and she understands time is an issue for most parents.

“Whether you have an hour or an afternoon,” she said, “if you can leave your watch, your Blackberry, or iPhone aside and just focus on your kids and the space you’re in, it’s an exhilarating experience for your family. It’s about getting back to the basics.”

In order to get back to the basics, she avoided scheduled activities. Organized sports and extracurricular activities were not a part of her family’s daily life. Instead, a backpack full of books and packed lunches ensured longer, more relaxed periods of time outdoors.

Louv said experts and scientists have yet to identify a specific amount of time kids should spend outside.

“One study done by the University of Essex showed five minutes in nature had an appreciable improvement on mental health,” he said. “But we don’t really have a full answer as far as how long.”

Louv said although more research is needed surrounding the issue of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” it is also one of common sense.

“Some time is better than none and more is better than some,” he said.

With winter approaching, there can be a tendency to spend less time outdoors. That doesn’t mean there aren’t outdoor-play opportunities available.

“We went sledding, built forts, went for nature walks and went to the beach,” Sullivan said. “I found that if I bundled the twins up and brought hot cocoa that most days they were fine.”

North Park Village Nature Center, which includes a 46-acre nature preserve and an indoor education facility, is one of the Sullivan family’s favorite spots during the winter. With a fireplace and free programs that always include an outdoor component, kids get the necessary time outside, but have a warm spot to return to.

Current preschool programs at the center cover topics such as owls, migratory birds and white-tailed deer. Children learn owl calls and, during this time of year, may even get an answer, said Sean Shaffer, one of two North Park Village Nature Center educators. Though the programs are free, most require advanced registration.

The center is also holding a winter solstice festival on Dec. 15. At the free event families can walk through luminary-lit trails, interact with wolves and coyotes, roast chestnuts by a bonfire, drink cider and listen to live music.

Shaffer suggests activities as simple as jumping in a pile of leaves or bringing a leaf home to do a crayon rub. When the snow falls, parents can help their children decipher different animal tracks in their front yard, he said.

“The main thing a child needs is permission. They’re already natural explorers. They can take the lead and parents can offer support.”

Local forest preserves and park districts are additional avenues to find natural spaces throughout Chicago.

“This is fundamental to people and their humanity,” said Louv. “Children in particular should have a right to benefit from experiences in nature.”